27 January 2011

What Makes a Bookstore Hip

First you must assume that bookstores can be hip. That it's hip to read.  That it's hip to go into a bookstore with the notion of buying a book. That bookstore patronage says more than just "I live over my mother's garage with my sixteen cats and read romance novels all day." (Per the latter, I don't judge. You are probably my most dependable library patron!)

I worked, for an interim between the dehumanizing brutality of airline work and the cool oasis of my current library job, in a very hip bookstore. This bookstore had all the trappings, of course: comfy leather sofas by a fireplace. Flavored coffees strong enough to sprout hair on a bowling ball. Underpaid clerks (mostly PhD lit majors) who were curiously happy to be earning minimum wage. We had a well-read clientele who cheerfully plunked down excessive amounts of money in an effort to reassure someone (perhaps themselves) that they were thoughtful, well-educated and urbane. We had the guy who parked his Humvee across 4 parking spaces. We had the women who bought graphic novel versions of Shakespeare for their four year-olds. We had the guy who looked a little like a vagrant but who was rumored to have inherited a fortune and who certainly bought books in a way that tended to back up that assertion.

I have been in a number of bookstores in my life, from only somewhat bigger than a broom closet (Shop Around the Corner) to mega-emporiums (Fox Books) and can authoritatively state that hipness is more than a glitzy interior design and a gazillion books. Sure, you have to take into account all of the ambience factors, such as the aroma of Arabica , just-right temperature, the faint whiff of printed page mingled with jasmine scented candles (for sale in the stationary department) and lighting which is a genius combination of bright enough to read by but not bright enough that you feel awkward staring at the nude figure-drawing books. Borders and Barnes and Noble both lose hip points in lighting and ambience. And Half-Price Books is definitely too "discount" to be taken seriously on this level. Buying books has to seem elitist, or it loses much of its cachet. Crossing the hip-line has to do with something a bit more illusory.

Having a staff that knows much more than you do about books, indeed much more about current and classic literature than may constitute a dignified social posture, is something of a beginning. Hipness is all about perception, much like the New York Times Book Review is all about actual literary quality. At the tipping point of hipdom, it matters less that you know more about books than whether your public thinks you know. Once you have convinced the consuming public that you are the arbiter of reading standards for the city, you have stepped into the Oprah-light.  The only thing left is to get the reigning local uber-hip, edgy-anarchist newsrag to name you the "Best Bookstore Experience." For some reason, there's nothing like being recommended by the counter-culture to make your rep. Once this starts to happen, baby, you've arrived.

It seems to help, in the bookstore game, if you are family-owned, a one trick pony, a "lone-reed." Corporate conglomeration seems to take all the "sticking-it-to-the-man" fun out of things. However, don't think of successful bookstore owners as readers, one of us. The ones I knew were all about the fancy house in the fancy suburb. They seldom came into the store, and I can't say that I ever saw them actually reading. It's usually best, for the purpose of hip, to keep them hidden away like the embarrassing relatives.

Having established yourself as hip, it takes some diligence to stay on top. It's probably best to monitor who you bring to book-signings. Stick with Martha (oh, yes, you know Martha-who - the Martha that looks good in stripes). Avoid anyone who writes movie-adaptation books. Don't worry about charming, attractive or even human. Sensation sells books.

In addition to promoting books that everyone has heard of, develop the knack for flogging the books NO ONE has heard of and making them sound like to-die-for must-haves.

Don't neglect your stationary department, if you choose to have one. Have items that cannot reasonably be found anywhere else. Book covers woven of real human hair, inkstands made from Lamborghini parts etc. Once you fall into the Yankee Candle trap, you've lost your edge. Go with locally made - the quirkier the better.

The great thing about a truly hip bookstore is that people feel enhanced by having come. Smarter, cooler, smoother, etc. And let's not forget - better informed - which, after all, is the icing on the cake. They get to hang out with interesting, well-read people. They have food they haven't tried. They take home something unique and memorable, both in merchandise and experience.

Not a bad way to make a living.

Character and Black Friday

I confess, I am one of those. The misguided, ill-advised, hopeless types who actually go out to shop in the middle of the night on Black Friday. Even my children have abandoned me at this point. But if I have one claim to fame, it is that I am a born hunter-gatherer. I have dickered in department stores. I have walked away with free merchandise and the store's blessing. I am the yard sale diva. I can barter with the best. I can win the who-paid-less game hands down. So Black Friday is my yearly magnum opus.

When I first started this crazy trek, I was in a position to truly value the economics of the effort. And my first year or two of this was both successful (in a commercial sense) and surreal (in an outlook on humanity sense). I saw some interesting crowd dynamics, suffered discomfort and cold (do they do this in warm climates?), came away with everything on my wish list, and solidified my future strategies.

By last year, the economic necessity was somewhat less, but I was hooked: the socio-anthropologic aspects of this ritual are irresistible. Nevertheless, it is measurably more enjoyable to go out on Black Friday if you remove the desperation aspect, leaving only the mildly competitive element. You'll just have to trust me on this. More, even, than the dollar savings, is that whiff of big-game hunting excitement in knowing you must be the fleetest, or the craftiest, or the cleverest, to claim victory. It is the notion that you are willing to commit something of yourself (your time, comfort, sleep and relative sanity) to the pursuit of the worthy goal: to be finished with THE LIST before December 1st.

Let me say, for the record, that I have heard the horror stories. People trampled in the melee to get those flat-screen televisions (true). People who pull guns or throw punches (also true). I have been in stores swarming with police officers. I have seen the hackles rise on people - gentle people - who have stood in line all night when a line jumper tries to break in line. I will also say, for the record, that many stores do not take sufficient precautions for crowd control.

Do yourself a favor - pay the extra for electronics and/or don't go looking for them on that day. Electronics departments are like entering the lions' den. Leave those deals to the folks who have camped out since the previous Wednesday. Happily, you have a very respectable chance of finding them online for a comparably discounted price.

Don't go at all if you are feeble, timid or in any way less than vigorous. Don't bring the little kids (anyone under 16) or Grandma, unless she's a black-belt.

Vastly more often than these incidents would presuppose, people rise to a level of remarkable decency on Black Friday. My experience this year was a case in point. I waited in line for nearly an hour with very kind women on either side of me - women who offered to help me get things to the front of the line, knowing that I had no cart. Women who sent their extra helpers out on scouting trips and brought back things for me too. The overall mood was cheerful and uncomplaining. When we reached the head of the line, the cashiers were calm and chatted amiably.

I am reminded that the same adversity that creates monsters of the weak, make heroes of the strong. This may be putting too fine a point on it, but if you can be helpful and cheerful when conditions are terrible, you haven't slept or eaten (or even gone to the bathroom), and you missed out on that Tonka truck as advertised,  you are among the truly virtuous.

You may wish a different arena in which to test human nature. I am fast approaching an age when I probably should forego the gladiator life. But in the meantime, I set my alarm and venture out to find some unexpected gifts for Christmas.